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In a Well in Spitalfields

May 24, 2013
by the gentle author

Twenty years ago, eighteen wooden plates and bowls were recovered from a silted-up well in Spitalfields. One of the largest discoveries of medieval wooden vessels ever made in this country, they are believed to be dishes belonging to the inmates of the long-gone Hospital of St Mary Spital, which gave its name to this place. After seven hundred years lying in mud at the bottom of the well, the thirteenth century plates were transferred to the Museum of London store in Hoxton where I went to visit them yesterday as a guest of Roy Stephenson, Head of Archaeological Collections.

Almost no trace remains above ground of the ancient Hospital of St Mary yet, in Spital Sq, the roads still follow the ground plan laid laid out by Walter Brune in 1197, with the current entrance from Bishopsgate coinciding to the gate of the Priory and Folgate St following the line of the northern perimeter wall. Stand in the middle of Spital Sq today, and you are surrounded by glass and steel corporate architecture, but seven hundred years ago this space was enclosed by the church of St Mary and then you would be standing in the centre of the aisle where the transepts crossed beneath the soaring vault with the lantern of the tower looming overhead. Stand in the middle of Spital Sq today, and the Hospital of St Mary is lost in time.

In his storehouse, Roy Stephenson has eleven miles of rolling shelves that contain all the finds excavated from old London in recent decades. He opened one box containing bricks in a plastic bag that originated from Pudding Lane and were caked with charcoal dust from the Fire of London. I leant in close and a faint cloud of soot rose in the air, with an unmistakable burnt smell persisting after four centuries. “I can open these at random,” said Roy, gesturing towards the infinitely receding shelves lined with boxes in every direction, “and every one will have a story inside.”

Removing the wooden plates and bowls from their boxes, Roy laid them upon the table for me to see. Finely turned and delicate, they still displayed ridges from the lathe, seven centuries after manufacture. Even distorted by water and pressure over time, it was apparent that, even if they were for the lowly inhabitants of the hospital, these were not crudely produced items. At hospitals, new arrivals were commonly issued with a plate or bowl, and drinking cup and a spoon. Ceramics and metalware survive but rarely wood, so Roy is especially proud of these humble platters. “They are a reminder that pottery is a small part of the kitchen assemblage and people ate off wood and also off bread which leaves no trace.” he explained. Turning over a plate, Roy showed me a cross upon the base made of two branded lines burnt into the wood. “Somebody wanted to eat off the same plate each day and made it their own,” he informed me, as each of the bowls and plates were revealed to have different symbols and simple marks upon them to distinguish their owners – crosses, squares and stars.

Contemporary with the plates, there are a number of ceramic jugs and flagons which Roy produced from boxes in another corner of his store. While the utilitarian quality of the dishes did not speak of any precise period, the rich glazes and flamboyant embossed designs, with studs and rosettes applied, possessed a distinctive aesthetic that placed them in another age. Some had protuberances created with the imprints of fingers around the base that permitted the jar to sit upon a hot surface and heat the liquid inside without cracking from direct contact with the source of heat, and these pots were still blackened from the fire.

The intimacy of objects that have seen so much use conjures the presence of the people who ate and drank with them. Many will have ended up in the graveyard attached to the hospital and then were exhumed in the nineties. It was the largest cemetery ever excavated and their remains were stored in the tall brick rotunda where London Wall meets Goswell Rd outside the Museum of London. This curious architectural feature that serves as a roundabout is in fact a mausoleum for long dead Londoners and, of the seventeen thousand souls whose bones are there, twelve thousand came from Spitalfields.

The Priory of St Mary Spital stood for over four hundred years until it was dissolved by Henry VIII who turned its precincts into an artillery ground in 1539. Very little detail is recorded of the history though we do know that many thousands died in the great famine of 1258, which makes the survival of these dishes at the bottom of a well especially plangent.

Returning to Spitalfields, I walked again through Spital Sq. Yet, in spite of the prevailing synthetic quality of the architecture, the place had changed for me after I had seen and touched the bowls that once belonged to those who called this place home seven centuries ago – and thus the Hospital of St Mary Spital was no longer lost in time.

Sixteenth century drawing of St Mary Spital as Shakespeare may have known it, with gabled wooden houses lining Bishopsgate.

“Nere and within the citie of London be iij hospitalls or spytells, commonly called Seynt Maryes Spytell, Seynt Bartholomewes Spytell and Seynt Thomas Spytell, and the new abby of Tower Hyll, founded of good devocion by auncient ffaders, and endowed with great possessions and rents onley for the releffe, comfort, and helyng of the poore and impotent people not beyng able to help themselffes, and not to the mayntennance of chanins, preestes, and monks to lyve in pleasure, nothyng regardyng the miserable people liying in every strete, offendyng every clene person passyng by the way with theyre fylthy and nasty savours.” Sir Richard Gresham in a letter to Thomas Cromwell, August 1538

Finely turned ash bowl.

Fragment of a wooden plate

Turned wooden plate marked with a square on the base to indicate its owner.

Copper glazed white ware jug from St Mary Spital

Redware glazed flagon, used to heat liquid and still blackened from the fire seven hundred years later.

White ware flagon, decorated in the northern French style.

A pair of thirteenth century boots found at the bottom of the cesspit in Spital Sq.

The gatehouse of St Mary Spital coincides with the entrance to Spital Sq today and Folgate St follows the boundary of the northern perimeter .

Bruyne:

My vowes fly up to heaven, that I would make
Some pious work in the brass book of Fame
That might till Doomesday lengthen out my name.
Near Norton Folgate therefore have I bought
Ground to erect His house, which I will call
And dedicate St Marie’s Hospitall,
And when ’tis finished, o’ r the gates shall stand
In capitall letters, these words fairly graven
For I have given the worke and house to heaven,
And cal’d it, Domus Dei, God’s House,
For in my zealous faith I now full well,
Where goode deeds are, there heaven itself doth dwell.
.

(Walter Brune founding St Mary Spital from ‘A New Wonder, A Woman Never Vexed’ by William Rowley, 1623)

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. Nina permalink
    May 24, 2013

    ….. another interesting article, thank you – these evocative objects tug at the heartstrings…… ( I just love the boots – still so perfect, as if they are waiting for the owner to reclaim them …..)

  2. Glenn permalink
    May 24, 2013

    It’s a privilege to live in Folgate Street.

  3. sprite permalink
    May 25, 2013

    A far cry from today’s disposable plates and crockery! and with the NHS reshuffling, it won’t be long before patients have to bring their own mug and plate and will be asked to be fed by their families. Just another layer of humanity upon all that have gone before.

  4. Tessa Stuart permalink
    May 25, 2013

    Fascinating story of humble objects, poignant in their ability to connect us imaginatively to the past.

  5. Molasses permalink
    May 26, 2013

    Could someone kindly translate Sir Richard Gresham’s letter in contemporary english?

  6. May 26, 2013

    Nearby and within the city of London there are 3 hospitals or spytells, commonly called Saint Mary’s Spytell, Saint Bartholomew’s Spytell and Saint Thomas Spytell, and the new abbey of Tower Hill, founded with devotion by people of faith years ago , and endowed with great possessions and rents to be used for the relief, comfort, and healing of the poor and impotent people who cannot help themselves, and not for so that canons, priests, and monks may live in pleasure, with no regard to the miserable people who lie in every street and offend very clean person passing by with their filthy and nasty smells.

    Very roughly

  7. Jack permalink
    June 7, 2013

    Has anyone any idea of what a lathe might look like that could turn those ancient plates?

  8. Fred permalink
    June 8, 2013

    @ Jack’s question : just Google image search “treadle lathe” and you’ll see an interesting array of old designs.

  9. June 13, 2013

    Thank you for posting these and for thinking to share them on my FB, they’re beautiful. It would be great to meet you some time and have you draw on one of my jugs :)

  10. June 13, 2013

    Great post and good to see these bowls shown in public, shame they live in the store. Jack the bowls were made on a pole lathe, I use one every day and turned 20 bowls on mine yesterday. google robin wood you’ll find photos and youtubes of the lathe in use. Turner is the 26th most common surname in the UK as against potter at 256th, nearly everyone in medieval times ate from wood. The craft dwindled once the stoke potteries made cheap ceramics in the 18th century. “The last bowlturner” was George Lailey, his lathe is the centrepiece of the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading, he used to be the most famous person from the small village of Bucklebury but has been rather eclipsed by Kate Middleton. Lailey died in 1958 aged 89. I took up the craft 30 years later and have now been doing it full time 20 years.

  11. June 13, 2013

    Thisivideo shows how the bowls would have been made http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLpNNf4V5lU

  12. Stephanie permalink
    June 25, 2013

    The boots look in too good a condition to have just been thrown away. Does anyone have any thoughts as to what happened to the owner?

  13. August 26, 2013

    I loved watching the video of Robin Wood turning his bowl – thanks! Valerie

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